International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
May 2006, Volume 1, Issue 2

Leading Figures in International Law

Elihu Root

Elihu Root (1845-1937)

William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, is not a well known political figure among the citizens of the US; he is probably unheard of beyond American shores. But in one appointment to his cabinet in 1899, he showed a remarkable insight which was to have a long term effect on world affairs, in much the same way as John Adams’ appointment of John Marshall as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States played such an important role in American history. The McKinley appointment was of Elihu Root to the position of Secretary of War.

It is particularly fitting to feature Elihu Root in this column during the 100th anniversary of the American Society of International Law, because he was the Society’s first president.

Elihu Root was, at the time of his appointment to the McKinley cabinet, hardly an ideal candidate for the position of Secretary of War. Without any military experience, he was a wealthy New York lawyer who represented railroads, banks and some of the so-called “robber barons” of American industrial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among his clients were railroad tycoons Jay Gould and E.H. Harriman. In 1873 he was a member of the defense team for the notorious William “Boss” Tweed, of Tammany Hall fame, in a criminal case involving public corruption charges against that political leader.

Root was born in Clinton, New York, the son of a Hamilton College mathematics professor. He attended Hamilton College, graduating first in his class at the age of 19. He then attended New York University Law School and entered the private practice of law soon thereafter.

His call to public service by President McKinley brought out in Elihu Root remarkable strengths and abilities which were to become so important to the growing world of international law and an international legal community at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Root served under both Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt as War Secretary. As such he is known for reorganizing the American military after the Spanish American War, including the establishment of a general staff; creation of military staff colleges and the Army War College; expanding the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York; and placing more federal controls on state National Guard units, all amounting to considerable achievement for one who had never served in the military.

But Root is best and more appropriately known for his efforts toward creating a more peaceful world. After leaving his War Secretary post in 1905 and returning to private practice, he was called upon by President Theodore Roosevelt to become the U.S. Secretary of State, a position he held until 1909.

Root’s international service can be divided into three parts: first, his actions as U.S. Secretary of State; second, his tenure as a one-term U.S. Senator from New York; and third, his actions as an “elder statesman” from the time of his retirement from the Senate in 1915 until his death in 1937.

As U.S. Secretary of State, Root had notable accomplishments. He was the first Secretary of State to devote considerable attention to Latin American countries.  After a friendship- creating 1906 tour of Latin America and of special significance to the cause of international dispute resolution, he sponsored the first Central American Peace Conference, which resulted in the creation of the Central American Court of Justice, one of the very first international dispute resolution tribunals in the world. He also established another international tribunal, the Permanent American-Canadian Joint High Commission for the settlement of future disputes between the two countries. He instructed the U.S. delegates to the second Hague Peace Conference of 1907 to support the creation of a “world court.”

Finally, he negotiated forty reciprocal international arbitration treaties during his tenure in office. It was for these efforts on behalf of the peaceful settlement of international disputes that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912.

As a one term United States Senator, from 1908 to 1914, Root assisted in the settlement of the North Atlantic Fisheries dispute. He also successfully opposed a Congressional bill that would have exempted United States shipping from paying users tolls for Panama Canal passage.

Among his accomplishments in the third part of his long and active career in public and international service are:

  • Serving as first President of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace (now the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace )
  • Serving on a committee of the League of Nations to develop plans for the Permanent Court of International Justice (the forerunner of the present International Court of Justice)
  • Serving as a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the first international dispute resolution tribunal in the world.
  • Serving as U.S. Commissioner Plenipotentiary to the International Conference on the Limitation of Armament

In the final paragraph of the pages devoted to him on the Nobel Prize web site, it is stated:

He believed that international law, along with accompanying machinery, represented mankind’s best chance to achieve world peace, but like the hardheaded realist that he was, he also believed that it would take much time, wisdom and patience, and toil to implement it effectively.

Elihu Root was a great American and a great international statesman. His many contributions to international law and the cause of world peace warrant that every succeeding generation recognize and pay him tribute for his long public service. It is very appropriate and fitting that he be recognized by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy as the first historical figure to be featured in this regular column of the International Judicial Monitor.

by James G. Apple, Co-Editor, International Judicial Monitor and President, International Judicial Academy

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Editors: James G. Apple, Katherine Brantingham and Andrew Solomon.
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